Fort McHenry funds are on hold Baltimore bastion's water-worn walls await budget bill's approval

September 08, 1997|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

A project to repair decades of water damage at Fort McHenry is partly done, but $1.8 million needed to complete the restoration is in congressional limbo.

A Senate Appropriations subcommittee approved the money in the budget bill that is making its way through Congress, and aides to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, say they expect full Senate approval in a few weeks.

The House of Representatives did not include the $1.8 million in its version of the budget bill, butthe Maryland delegation is cautiously optimistic that after a House-Senate conference committee meets to hammer out differences in the bills, the money will be included in the final version.

"We're hopeful that the money will survive in the full Senate committee and the conference and ultimately go through because it is one of the senator's top priorities in the Interior [subcommittee]," a Mikulski aide said. "It's a national landmark, part of our national heritage and our identity, basically."

The fort restoration began in 1994, and National Park Service officials say they could complete the $5.6 million project in the next three years if funding is approved.

"This is the culmination of 15 years of planning to get this park into better condition for the long run," Park Superintendent Kayci Cook said. "We shouldn't have to do another major renovation for a long time."

Progress to date

Since construction began, workers have finished about three-fifths of the work on the outer walls, but Cook said the whole project is only about 30 percent to 35 percent complete, with the powder magazines, underground bombproof rooms and ravelin (a protective structure for the fort's entrance) needing repairs.

Some of the damage dates to the early 1970s, when archaeologists and architects discovered problems with bulging brick along the fort's bastions.

During an earlier restoration in the 1930s, Portland cement had been used with the bricks, popular because of its strength, hardness and low moisture absorbency. But the cement caused other problems involving water drainage.

"It does not allow water to escape," park ranger Scott Sheads said of the cement, explaining that the water's freezing and thawing caused the walls to begin buckling.

More of the cement was used in 1974 to repair decaying sections, but that only added to the problem.

"We were perpetuating the problem without even knowing it," Cook said.

A rich history

Built in 1797, the fort is most famous for enduring British bombardment during the 1814 Battle of Baltimore -- inspiring Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner." The bombardment was commemorated last night in Defenders' Day ceremonies at the fort.

Smithsonian historian Lonn Taylor said the fort -- used as a prison and Union headquarters during the Civil War and as a hospital during World War I -- ranks "right there with the Statue of Liberty and Mount Vernon as places that have become a part of civic religion."

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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